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POV and Sins Worth Risking

So I mentioned recently having, er, “finished” work on my story “Ten Spikes and a Hammer.” Which is a story about a man, following two timelines in his life: one during his days towards the end of World War II, and another towards the end of his life. The interesting thing is that something, something, just wasn’t working with this story. I worked it, I worked it some more, I massaged, I fiddled, and somehow there was something wrong.

Part of it was the fact that this character is, at the same time, a fairly sympathetic character in a really difficult situation that makes him act (or, rather, speak) like a jerk, and partly the fact that his war experiences and his postwar experiences have conspired to make him, well, complex in terms of his thinking about race. Which, when you’ve got the whole story told from this individual’s point of view (POV), can present challenges in developing some character sympathy. This is a guy who was born in 1926, who went to war against Japan — a war that lasted significantly longer in his world than it did in ours — and which had some scary long-term consequences. (Something along the lines of Japan having come up with a form of geomantic warfare comparable to atom bombs, and the West having to scurry along to catch up and take on Japan.)

So anyway, this character of mine comes off as a racist. Hell, in certain ways he is a racist, though one of those who is mostly talk, and who actually will give people more of a chance than you might think. But the fact that he makes free with words like “chink” and “gook” (in describing Chinese and Korean allies working with him against Japan) and “Jap,” “Nip,” and “riceball” (for the Japanese enemy, and for any Japanese he meets after the war) surely makes him naturally unsympathetic from a more, er, “enlightened” point of view.

Point of view, I decided, was the problem. Jim Benson needed an intermediary, someone who could display the man’s faults, but also softly nudge into view why he has them, and, yes, they’re faults, but they’re human faults. Do I sympathize with a man who calls Chinese “chinks”? Well, that’s a nasty word to throw around, but it’s not the whole picture. (Just like how people who mutter about “waegukin” when I walk into a place aren’t necessarily racist bastards; they’re thinking racially, yeah, but are they judging me, hating me for that data point? If they are, it comes out in how they act.

(I’m not trying to play apologist for racist speech. I’m just saying people are complex, they can have certain received attitudes that affect how they speak, while underneath it behaving in ways that contradict your expectations. I’ve talked about this in terms of people I’ve known.)

Anyway, so I reworked the story in terms of POV. But there was more to it than that: I found, when I started rewriting it in 3rd person, I wasn’t really inclined to stick with a limited 3rd person stuck close to Jim’s consciousness. Rather, I found that it was almost more natural to drift, slowly, into other points of view of people around him, especially in the scenes where he’s older and struggling with a world that sees things differently from how he does. So there’s a certain degree of drifting there. I need to give the story another look, at some time in the near-ish future, to see whether I handled it in an efficient enough way, to make sure that there are no really jarring  shifts that look like they’re not there on purpose.

This has me thinking about POV in short SF. I haven’t actually bothered to sit down and count things up, but I get them impression that the two dominant POVs are first-person (with one POV per chapter or section, for example), or 3rd person limited omniscient focused on a single viewpoint character per section or, more often, for a whole story. I don’t find a lot of 3rd person omniscient, especially of the sort where the narrator is, to some degree, at odds with the main character. (Like we see in H.G. Wells’ novel Star Begotten, which I read recently. Wells’ narrator — not quite Wells, but close — is definitely making fun of aspects of his protagonist and other characters, even though there are eerie similarities between the main character and the author. This makes the whole thing really interesting in a way I don’t find altogether commonly used in contemporary SF.)  And while one could bitch about the limitations, I’m more inclined to see this as a function of the transparency that’s achieved by certain stylistic devices becoming commonplace in a genre and naturalized to a given reading population. The simple fact of the matter is, making a story “harder” than it needs to be is something akin to making a story longer than it needs to be: it’s a sin against the reader.

But some sins are, I think, forgivable; or rather, some sins, when turned inside out, become blessings. If messing with POV in a controlled way gets you a more powerful, affecting story, and you can do it without making readers wobble on the POV issue, then its a risk worth taking, I think.

I think.

I’m also sort of wondering about whether this differs much over the fence in fantasy-land — whether there’s more use of something like 3rd person omniscient over in the fantasy genre, or horror, or other subgenres. I’m too busy to look into it right now — busily catching up on my magazine subscriptions for 2008 — namely Asimov’s SF, Interzone, and Black Static, as well as a few online mags I’m way behind on — to actually sit down and look too closely.

Writers out there: what have you done with POV lately? And what’s the next thing you want to do experimenting with it? Me, I’m still casting about for something to try. Hmmmmm. Maybe something with shifting POVs, involving characters who are at odds with one another?

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